Monday, April 22, 2013

No Place Like Om

Click below for some views from Nepal--Boudhanath Stupa, Swayambhunath Temple (aka the Monkey Temple, thanks to all the holy monkeys!), and views from two of the monasteries where I had the opportunity to work and visit. I especially enjoy the meditative music, which was heard throughout many of the Buddhist areas in Nepal. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Spirit of Shakti

One of my favorite photos. Both of these women, weighted down with nearly 100 pounds
of agricultural goodness that they harvested. Note that the wide strip of cloth around their
heads is not a headband, but is the way they carry their loads. All of this is beyond
impressive to me, but their beautiful smiles in the midst of it all, were stunning.

Today’s post  is a dedication to some pretty amazing women in Nepal. I’ve been fortunate enough to live with families throughout  my stay, so I’ve been privy to some extraordinary inside knowledge about family life. Before I continue, though, understand that because of the dramatic geography of Nepal, many groups of ethnicities exist within Nepal, as many as 70+ by some accounts. There are also Hindu-driven beliefs, Buddhist beliefs, and syntheses of the two regarding the women’s role(s). In short, it’s near impossible to make blanket statements or generalizations; my observations, then, are not intended to capture the nuanced traditions of all groups. They are simply that—observations I couldn’t help but make during my stay here in Nepal of some very deserving women.

And what about Shakti?

Shiva may be the most dominant of Gods in the Himalayan kingdom, but the female in Hinduism is a manifestation of both motherhood and Shiva's female companion, Shakti. Shakti is primarily benevolent, but when she is wild, she is referred to as "Feminine Cosmic Energy of Lord Shiva" (ok, so, "benevolent with attitude"--sounds about right to me!).

Shakti is considered the creator, preserver and destroyer, a Universal Mother/ Mother Goddess with power to restore balance and destroy evil forces. Every Hindu God has its Shakti--without it, their power would not exist. She goes by other names (Devi, Durga, Kali, to name a few), and is revered as divine for her influences and powers.

See if you agree with me that these Nepali women personify the Spirit of Shakti...

Evening time, and the sisterhood of Nepali women is still evident. Red
clothing is typical for married women.

Some beautiful smiles. This mom enjoys the Holi festival with her kids,
wisely out of the fray.

Many of the older women are still hard-working, but they still know
how to enjoy themselves--this woman is also enjoying events of the
Holi festival from a safe vantage point. 

Beautiful colors abound in their dress, even when they are working.
Traditional craftswomen still work their magic
with painstaking care.
One of my hosts, known as Didi or Hem-ji. She typically
starts in mid-afternoon to prepare the evening meal.

Uphill, barefoot, and laden with goods. As this picture was taken
about 10am, she was probably on her 3rd trip from the terraced fields.

When I see these women early in the morning,
it makes my running feel so very frivolous.

Again, these women can be seen in the evening. Can you tell I was beyond
impressed? I would love to show you pictures of their weather-worn
 faces close up, their smiles when I greeted them--still so polite despite
  their loads, but I didn't want to be intrusive.

Dedicated and hardworking teachers; 3 of them travel from the village
at 4:45am to teacher college, return on the 10 o'clock bus to teach
at 11:00 am. Teachers share the duties of of teaching all students,
regardless of age. 
My incredible host "sister", who allowed me to stay in her home, shared
her lifestyle, and provided real insight into the ways of Nepalese women.
"Didi" is in charge of getting the day started. A mainstay
around the school grounds and my host family, this is
one amazing woman. Salty yet caring, with a heck of a
sense of humor. Kids and adults alike absolutely adore her.

As traditional as she is, Didi was still curious to learn
a wee bit about technology.
Oh how I would have loved to speak fluent Nepali
with Didi!

The women are meticulous about their homes, even
sweeping the packed dirt area outside the entryway.
They use brooms made of twigs, sticks, and
sometimes straw. And yes, sweeping the dirt actually
DOES make quite a difference.

Washing clothes is a typical morning chore, especially on Saturdays.
Nepalese normally work 6 days/ week, with Saturday being their

Women in the fields, taking a well-deserved break. I've been told
more than once that the agricultural workers date back generations,
and that they are content with what they do.
I'm certain that answers would vary according to whom I asked.
The familial bonds are strong here, outside of the big cities. Here you
can see 3 generations together while mom works.
Local women gathering water from the town well. 
Didi, posing for me--in all her glory. Bejeweled daily with
a beaded necklace, a wristful of bangles, red dress, and
dual red tikkas on the forehead and the hairline, like other
married Hindu women, she is a lovely force to be reckoned with,
Her photo embodies the strong spirit of
so many women I have met. And most definitely, the
indomitable spirit of Shakti. 

Wondering if my fellow femmes have a touch of Shakti within, too? ;)

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Haves and Have Nots, with love, from Nepal

I have (nearly) mastered the art of Namaste during running and hiking up steep hills, even when nearly out of breath.
I have not attempted Namaste while riding a bike.

Image 119/ 365: No Yeti sightings...yet. 
I have seen endless goats, cows, buffalo, chickens, and dogs—in the road and elsewhere.
I have not seen Yeti, and doubt I will unless he has really poor map reading skills.

I have become rather adept at the logistics of using a squat toilet.
I have not become adept at using the pitcher next to the squat toilet.
Image 118/ 365: The squat art to this,
if I say so myself.

I have enjoyed walking and hiking along the myriad paths through terraced fields.
I have obviously not been endowed with mountain goat qualities like my Nepali counterparts.
Image 117/ 365: Barefoot and loaded down,
these women could run uphill circles
around me.
I have grown accustomed to the frequent lack of power. 
I have not missed it as much as I thought I would. 
Image 116/ 365: The Nepalese know how
to deal with their power!

I have explored many areas that are well off the tourist track, thanks to my immersion in the daily lives of Nepalese families.
I have not managed to “blend in”, despite feeling very accepted.
Image 115/ 365: Play, the universal language
Image 114/365: Being welcomed
by my newest students

I have tried every dish served to me—and liked it! (thanks, Mom)
I have not been able to reconcile with the lack of green vegetables.
Image 113/365: "King Curd" of Bhaktapur fame.
Pretty delish, even though this sample wasn't
served in the traditional earthenware pot. 

I have become fond of dal bhaat, the national dish of rice and lentils.
I have not learned how to eat it the Nepalese way—with my fingers.
Image 112/365: Dal bhaat--rice with lentil "soup"
and curried veg to mix in with the rice
I have lived with families throughout my stay, even helping with chores and cooking.
I have managed not to offend anyone with my behaviors.
Image 111/ 365: Helping with the evening meal,
churning out "roti" one by one...
good thing we weren't in a hurry.
I have tried to learn and observe as much as possible.
I have not tried to impose judgment or “the Western Way”.
Image 110/ 365: Optimism reigns :)

I have listened to students talk about their school with pride.
I have not failed to be amazed at their optimism.

Image 109/ 365: The power of
a smile and trying
to speak their language can
break down a lot of walls
and misperceptions

I have managed to entertain even the most traditional people I’ve encountered with my attempts at speaking Nepali.
I have not forgotten the power of a smile.

I have come seeking to learn, explore, and meet new people with different ideas.
I have not been disappointed.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Microbus, Part 2--We have a winner!

All hail the Microbus, the White Van, the workhorse of Nepalese modernization! Ode to the Microbus!  
Wasn’t sure how to title this post with due honor, but today was the day, folks. If ever there was an epitome of “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey”, this was it.  The Spirit was alive. I believe I found at least a regional champion for Microbus Stuffing. Indeed, the honor goes to the Microbus Team (driver and door man) with nerves of steel, placid temperaments, and an obvious sense of duty—to get everyone possible to his/ her destination.  I anticipate, in this land of temples, gods, and goddesses, that a temple will be erected in their honor sometime very soon.
Let’s take a journey, shall we?
Of course, I had the ultimate vista point in the back of the bus. Talking prime microbus real estate here, albeit prime still equates to “squished”, so I wasn’t totally off the hook. Buses here don’t like to go anywhere until there are a minimum number of people—determined, of course, by the alignment of the lunar and solar calendars, a semblance of hourly time, and the mood of the driver.
As we waited, I was delighted to see the ground through the wooden floorboards of the bus. Easier to get out were the bus to flip over, said my optimistic self.
I apologize for the blurriness of all of these pictures,
but it was a very movement-intensive journey. An
assemblage of rocks masquerading as a road, and no
shocks on the van aren't a good mix for photos.
Then there were the bags of rice (50lb, at least) and potatoes on the floor, serving as impromptu seating. The benches—placed around the bus rather than typical row fashion—began to fill up. Let me explain the Nepali view of “space”.  3-4” of seat showing? Perfect. Come on over and ooze on in. “Personal space”? No such animal. We had a “comfy” 20 or so, and we were off.

The Champion Microbus Stuffing team begins to
demonstrate the art of maximizing van space. Please
notice the smiling faces all around. 
Shoes of the passengers on the roof of the van. Brave souls.

Young and old alike hanging on and taking it
all in stride. 

Our ~10km journey to Bhaktapur entailed at least 5 stops and 4 waits—motor off type of waits. And our mission-driven Microbus Champions-to-be were on a roll loading older people, young people, bags, more rice, more potatoes. I stopped counting passengers at 36. Only because I couldn’t see anything happening near the front of the bus. (Can I remind my readers that a microbus is merely a white van?!) From my viewpoint, I witnessed that age is not a factor in finding a seat. The elderly sat or knelt on the floor in what must have been hellacious pain (The God of Shock Absorbers has yet to make his debut here—although I wonder if such jarring serves to (re)align my chakras?), and chatted merrily with those around them.

My count of 36 did not include those hanging outside the door, sharing space with the Door Man. 

Nor did my count include those on top of the bus.

Nor did it even include the goat, wisely hiding underneath the seat.
The best image I could get of the Wise Goat under the seat. 
I think I still see some space...

Bus passengers hanging onto the door. Again,
taking it all in stride. Nothing but a thing...

As anyone who has partaken in the delights of public transit knows, everyone has a different destination. Hence the need for an exit strategy.
Passengers exiting the bus at various stops upended a good percentage of the other riders, causing a Passenger Repacking—each more efficient than the last. From my seat, I was on the edge of the fray, able to watch every movement with disbelief that all of this entertainment was included in my bus fare.
And every bit happened in true Nepalese fashion—with nary a hint of discontent.

Unless, perhaps, you ask the goat.

When in Nepal, pay due homage to the bus drivers, my friends, and may your views be optimal wherever you find a “space.” 
So, at the end of the journey, people pour out of the
van, and rather than scatter to the winds, they all wait
patiently to pay the Door Man.
The goat's owner finally managed to get him "un-wedged"
from underneath the seat. A victorious day for all. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A glimpse into a Nepali morning in the year 2070…

Let’s begin with a bit of time travel, days before the start of the year 2070, according to the lunar calendar—57 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar.  The Nepali New Year begins in mid-April, so kids here are busy taking exams, much like their American counterparts do before Christmas/ New Year’s break. A lunar cycle is divided into the 2 “dark” weeks of waxing moon, leading up to the full moon, and the 2 “bright” weeks of waning moon, preceding the new moon. Festivals happen on a given bright or dark day of the lunar cycle, even though the actual “date” may change from year to year.
Image  108/365: According to the lunar cycle, it is the year 2069 now,
but the New Year (2070) will begin in mid-April. Hence, Happy Holi 2069
last week. 
Time is 5 hours and 45 minutes ahead of GMT, (9:45 ahead of North Carolina) and evidently that 45 minute bit stems from a little rivalry with India with the intent to distinguish Nepali time from India’s 5 hour 30 minute time. But, wherever you may be, and regardless of your clock time, here's a glimpse into my mornings…

It all starts with the greeting: “Namaste.” Saying Namaste with hands together, and a nod of the head means “the God in me bows to the God in you”, or “I bow to the God in you”, depending on who translates it.  Greeting someone like this sets you up for success, don’t you think? And when they are accompanied by smiles like this, there are very few better ways to feel accepted into another’s culture.
Image 107/ 365: A typical morning Namaste from one
of the students. 
Image 106 /365: How can you not smile??
Morning puja: Hindu women have a copper plate with flowers/ flower petals, rice/ seeds, maybe a sweet, and some incense to offer the gods. In some places they may walk down the street and perform it more socially, but it can be done outside the home, either at the doorstep or home altar. Before setting down the offering, they sprinkle water on the doorstep or around the altar, and sprinkle the rest on the altar or in a specially designated spot near the door.  Often, bells are also rung during this ceremony. They perform all of this at the start of the day, before doing anything else—which, to me, is not only religious, but represents a high level of conscious gratitude. Not sure about you, readers, but it certainly is easy to take things for granted in our way of life.
Image 105 /365: An example of morning puja: you can see the flowers,
incense, colored "tika" powder, and sprinklings of water and flower
petals. Other offerings may include sweets and seeds. Puja at many
homes is placed on both sides of the doorway each morning, so there
are actually two of these. 

Image 104/365: Always, always, always, these women
are heading home with full baskets when I'm just
getting started. 
In Nepal, there is a saying that “Visitors are Gods,” and in my experience so far, they can be doting, with endless offerings of tea, rice, warm milk and millions of smiles. They have made phone calls to friends to set up an otherwise impossible meeting for me,  and have helped me reserve seats on a local flight at a “Nepali” price. When I wander through the village, I never get far, as they invite me into their homes, pull up a woven straw stool and serve me warm buffalo milk.  They have served as guides through town, and are as curious to know about me as I am to learn about them. They are patient (entertained?) with my language skills, as we navigate through my phrasebook, sing songs and look at pictures together. A later morning start than I am used to lends itself well to exploring and observing. And I’ve gotta tell you, the women here are incredibly busy, starting early—the women of the house are starting to let me help a little with chores, but they keep a mean pace!
Drinking warm buffalo milk, offered by the family of some local girls
during an evening of wandering in the village.
Image 103/ 365: One of my impromptu Nepali teachers.
He lives upstairs, and runs the local milk collection
business. His son lives in Boston.

School here begins at about 9:45 (10:45 during exams) in the morning, and goes until 4pm.  Kids show up as early as 8:15, though, eager to play with friends, and hang out. They definitely know how to have fun—one little bouncy ball (the gumball machine size) provided over 2 hours of diversion for about 20 boys before school! The school playground (about the size of a volleyball court) is the flattest stretch of ground around —even though they say they love soccer, it looks like they don’t have many opportunities to actually play it full on themselves.
Image 102/ 365: Kids playing soccer with a tiny pink bouncy ball,
one of many games they devised during a 2 1/2 hour time span.

Image 101/ 365: Playing together on the slide--a fast and steep one!
Image 100/ 365: Playing with and sharing a rangichangi (colorful) ball. 

Image 99/ 365: Listening to music together in the morning. Old McDonald's
Farm and the ABC song were the definite hits. 
There is electricity, but lately it just hasn't been on in the mornings. Nepal uses a policy of “load-shedding”, which are scheduled power cuts.  Power is usually on anywhere from 2-6 hours / day, which, as you can imagine, severely inhibits industry, communication, and production--at least according to many Western standards. Load-shedding impacts everyone, city and rural alike, so generators can be common in some areas, especially those which rely heavily on tourism. For those of you who love to check the news/ weather/ email first thing in the morning, you’d be sorely out of luck! (I have to admit, I kind of like it!) Nepalese in the rural areas tend to stay up a little later on nights with power so they can watch TV, otherwise it’s early “lights out”—a very good thing since music from the local temple starts around 4:15 am…
Image 98/ 365: Enterprising businesses have generators to deal with
continual power cuts.

Image 97/ 365: A Hindu temple and home to a local "sadhu", a holy man
who has chosen to renounce society in favor of individual spiritual
practice and focus. His music can be heard as early as 4:15, then again
in the evening. The structure in the near right in the picture is one of
two funeral pyres for Hindu cremation. The bamboo fences house
the local cemetery.

Image 96/ 365: The local sadhu. And yes, I went
with another local man (principal of my school) to
visit him. 
With that, I bid you “Namaste” (which also means “goodbye”), and may you and that God within you have a fantastic day! 
Image 95/ 365: Namaste!! Here's to what the rest of the day will bring!